If our organisations and our teams are going to survive and thrive in this new, disrupted world then we need a fundamentally new way of relating to our people. This video explores how leaders can do things differently using the EACH model – Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings. 

When you look at the research into who we trust, there are some challenging implications for HR.  So much of our current approach stems is based around our leaders being the font of all truth, wisdom and credibility.

And yet, the Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that we trust our leaders much less than we trust ‘people like us’.

Marketing cottoned onto this a while back. They’re obsessed with Facebook “likes” or positive customer reviews. They know that we will trust a TripAdvisor review over the hotel PR blurb any day and so they have exploited the rise of social media to ensure that their customers hear great things – from people like them. We in HR have been a little slower to embrace this societal change and to use it to our advantage. If we assume that the Edelman Trust Barometer results are relevant for our employment relationships, then this should challenge us to rethink our approach in a number of areas. If we have “trust in people like us” at the forefront of our minds then maybe our reliance on our leaders for communication, engagement and training would lessen and we would start seeing the value of using our frontline employees far more?

Instead of grimacing when we sporadically click on Glassdoor to check out what our latest disgruntled ex-employee has been saying about us, we might follow the L’Oreal example. They had a big campaign where they encouraged their current employees to write reviews on Glassdoor. This didn’t just result in a 200% increase in the numbers they had on there, but also a much more accurate summary of what it was like to work there.

Whether online or via the old-school paper newsletter, internal comms teams still rely heavily on leader-led communication to broadcast corporate information. When I joined the BBC, I was initially horrified to learn that our version of the newsletter was an editorially independent magazine called “Ariel”. Paid for by management – but free to say whatever they liked as long as it adhered to the BBC’s editorial guidelines. It used to drive me mad that a big chunk of my budget was being spent on a newsletter that would regularly be critical of my latest HR policy announcement. But I eventually realised that it was the one piece of communication that was really trusted. When you have 6000+ journalists working with you, many of whom had the regular emails from Internal Comms on auto-delete, to have a trusted form of communication was vital, even if occasionally uncomfortable.

We have known for a while that referrals from current employees often make the best hires and employee referral schemes have been around forever. But it works the other way too. Who are you more likely to believe about what it’s like to work somewhere? A recruitment advert or a current employee? Equipping your great people with a strong brand message and trusting them to actively promote you either in person or via social media will build far greater belief in your employment brand than a nice careers website.

Some organisations ask employees to help each other onboard. Southwest Airlines, for instance, invites people from all levels of the company, to talk about their jobs to recruits. Whole Foods, the US grocery retailer, actually gets its employees (not the HR manager or the store manager) to decide whether a new starter should stay or not. After 90 days the team is invited to vote on whether to keep the employee; this sounds quite brutal but actually makes a lot of sense given they’re the ones most likely to know if the person is right for the company. Commerce Sciences, a Silicon Valley tech start-up, has a tradition in which the last person to join the team is responsible for creating a starter kit for the next person.

Instead of the parental, leader-led approach to performance reviews, more and more companies are seeing the value of peer to peer review. Whilst getting feedback from your manager is clearly important, understanding how your team members view your contribution can often be even more impactful. The proliferation of employee feedback apps such as Culture Amp and Achievers show that this method is gaining in popularity. But there is also the underused team performance discussion where employees are encouraged to provide feedback to their peers.

Our reliance on the leader as the source of truth is diminishing and smarter HR teams are seeing how their frontline employees can become so much more than simply passive recipients. Engaging your employees as the designers of learning content, as the advocates for your employment brand and the genuine voice of the organisation takes more than just time and creative thinking – it takes guts. Leaders and HR find it hard to relinquish control of the message and methods of delivery. But if we don’t, we risk missing out on a huge, untapped resource that can be so much more effective.

Right now, management teams all over the world are debating what they should do with the future workplace. Some, like DropBox are getting rid of offices for individual working completely. At the other end of the spectrum, some, like Goldman Sachs, seem to be denying that the last 18 months even happened and are urging everyone to get back to normal as soon as possible.

Most leaders though are taking a more progressive and rational approach and opting for a hybrid workplace. Whether that’s a 2/3 day split like at BP or even better – like O2, Mondelez, Standard Chartered – allowing for personal choice about where we want to work.

But what does this mean for managers who are trying to get the work done, keep customers and team members happy and still provide this level of individual choice? How can you make the future workplace – work?!

Got to work for all

As managers trying to juggle different – and sometimes conflicting needs and wants within a team – and still deliver – it’s tempting to look for some rule or policy that we can use to give us the answer. But the smarter leaders know that a prescriptive policy is NEVER going to cater for every possible situation. The best and really the ONLY way to resolve conflicting needs and wants is to talk it through as a team. If you treat people like grown-ups and share the dilemma – you can work through it together – through conversations. True, not everyone may get everything they want, but you’re treating them like adults and it’s more likely to be resolved amicably without applying a big one-size-fits-all approach.

Level the playing field

If you’re really going to make the future ways of working happen effectively, then it’s worth thinking about how you can create the same experience for your people, regardless of where they are based. It’s well-known that human beings tend to show bias towards the people we see more regularly and that remote workers can feel less valued as a result. One way of levelling the playing field is the approach that the company Coinbase take where they commit to there being no explicit or implicit disadvantages to working from any location and conduct all team meetings as if everyone were working remotely – including colleagues in the office who connect from their desks. Or have a think about how you reward and recognise your people and make sure that the celebrations aren’t always office based.

Retaining your culture

Managers I meet are worrying about how they can continue to retain their culture if more of their team aren’t in the office regularly – and I think this is a valid concern. What we see companies doing is being really clear on the key interactions with your team members that are best done face to face? – the so-called ‘moments that matter’

Managers at ABN Amro have identified 4 key moments that matter – being recruited, being inducted onboarded, dealing with difficult times and building social relationships. Once you’ve identified the key moments for your people that are best done face to face, then you can co-ordinate the team being together. Maybe have a think about the moments that matter in your area? Or better still, discuss and agree them with your team. Agreeing on the types of activity that play best remotely or face to face, rather than how many days a week tends to be more productive.

Leader’s checklist

And what about you as a leader? How might you need to work differently? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to hopefully help you move to a more hybrid workplace

  1. Are my meetings always about ‘tasks’ or do I create opportunities for social interaction?
  2. Am I having enough quick check-ins and chats about career development?
  3. Am I celebrating enough as a team? How am I recognising individual team members?
  4. Am I using a range of tools such as WhatsApp or Slack to keep conversations going outside of meetings?
  5. Do I Work From Anywhere – or am I always in the office? If leaders don’t actively work away from the office then it will be seen as something that in reality is frowned upon.

But more than anything, leaders can make this work by not seeing and framing Working from home as an indulgence. If we continue to imply ‘BUT, THE REAL WORK HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE!’ we’ll be back to packed commuter trains and cubicle-working in no time at all. Offering greater choice about where and when your teams do their work is a fantastic opportunity to provide the flexibility and autonomy we crave whilst providing the social interaction and structure too.

I was reading in the news today about a guy who had just won a legal claim against unfair dismissal. He’d called in sick complaining of a bad chest infection but had been spotted out later that day, drinking and smoking in a bar. His company fired him but lost their claim that they had been right to do so because, their detailed sickness and absence policies hadn’t specifically mentioned that employees couldn’t socialise whilst off sick.

Apart from despair, what should our reaction in HR be to cases like these?

Should we immediately add in a new rule about not socialising whilst off sick? Maybe we even need to clarify what we mean by socialising? Is seeing family and friends ok, but not drinking alcohol? How far a distance from their home should they be allowed to travel? And how long could the socialising last for? Is one hour ok, but not two?

I know I’m being facetious and whilst this particular case might seem absurd and extreme, HR does have these sorts of issues cropping up with depressing regularity.

Full disclosure – I’m not an employment lawyer and my colleagues have suggested that I’m not even a proper HR person as I didn’t come up the traditional HR route of policy and process. But, it seems fairly obvious to me that more rules, more detail, more specifics are not the answer. We can’t possibly legislate for every eventuality. What’s even more important is that by trying to protect our organisations from people like this guy, we penalise the vast majority of our people, who have no intention of calling in sick and heading down the pub.

Tons of rules scream ‘we don’t trust you!’

Tons of rules speak volumes about how little we trust our people – to either behave decently or be capable of using their judgement. And this at a time when we are crying out for innovation, personal accountability and the ability to work with agility and cope with ambiguity. For all our values posters about integrity and teamwork, the pages of fine print we get employees to sign point to a very different culture.

And the biggest irony? We potentially leave our organisations more exposed to risk of damaging claims because we have so many rules – but not the precise one that caters for every scenario.

So, if the answer isn’t to provide more detail, maybe the reverse is true. Maybe this company that is right now reeling from the absurdity of their legal battle, should be thinking about how they take a step back, move away from the detail and instead work with principles, not policies.

Principles not policies

Fortunately, this is a growing trend for HR. Instead of being placed into the role of compliance officer, HR is replacing rules and policies with broad principles that use notions of reasonableness, that start from a position of trust – or assume positive intent.

Let’s look at some examples:

We’ve got social media policies that encourage employees to ‘play nice’, ‘use common sense’ and ‘if you mess up, apologise and take it down’ being used by companies such as Gap, Intel and Ford.

We’ve got dress codes that suggest you ‘Dress for your day’ being used at Legal and General.

We’ve got expenses policies that give employees the freedom to spend without pre-approval on the basis that they do so ‘within reason’ at the company Base Camp.

We’ve got Telefonica showing they trust their people to ‘work where you are most productive’ instead of the worrying post-pandemic trend of 3 days in, two days out of the office.

And we’ve got organisations like HubSpot who dispense with rule books almost entirely and encourage their people to ‘use good judgement’.

I’m not naive enough to pretend that there doesn’t need to be some kind of legalistic framework to some of our policies. Of course there does. But I do think we can revisit many of the countless rules we inflict on our people and take a different approach. So maybe the next time you’re thinking about tightening up on the detail of a policy, maybe instead just write a statement based around common sense and sound judgement and see how that goes down?

Next time we’ll look at how you help managers cope without the detailed rule book and how HR can help them to use their judgement.

It’s hard to argue that investing in for our employees’ health and wellbeing is anything other than a good thing. Particularly now when the pandemic is creating additional pressures in our already stressful lives. And I’m not going to. Argue I mean. But I do think we should question the corporate approach to health and wellbeing and ask whether the things we’re doing are really helping? Or are they unnecessary investments that delude us into thinking that the health and wellbeing box can be ticked? We should question whether our healthy snacks and instructive posters are addressing the real barriers to feeling well. Or whether they are yet another example of the parental relationships we foster in most organisations? Should we be the caring parent and provide the right kinds of food, exhortations and education? Or should we look at the things we do that create/add to the stress in the first place and try and reduce those?

Health and wellbeing at work is now a massive industry. It currently stands at $53 billion and is set to grow to $97 billion by 2027. That’s a lot of yoga classes and Fitbits.

Most of our health and wellbeing support falls into one of the following:

  1. Giving health education and instructions such as ‘take a break from your screen’, timely pop-ups reminding employees to ‘now drink some water’ – or my personal favourite that I saw recently – advising women to ‘practice your pelvic lifts’ via a poster on the back of the ladies’ loo door!
  2. Protecting employees from stress by putting in place certain restrictions such as the French ‘right to disconnect’ law, banning email sending after certain hours or Volkswagen, who blocked emails after hours.
  3. Gifts and perks such as gym membership, a back massage at your desk, or fresh fruit.
  4. Training for both managers and employees in how to spot signs of mental health problems and
  5. Providing professional help to tackle these issues such as Employee Assistance Programmes.

Our health and wellbeing initiatives tend to be patronising

I’m not suggesting for one minute that these things are bad, nor do they come from anywhere other than positive intent. However, as with many employment initiatives, they can tend towards being patronising and fail to address the real causes of poor health and wellbeing.

Instead of acting like a caring parent, who knows what’s good for our people and gives out remedies, it would be great to see organisations taking a different approach. We should instead be tackling the causes of stress and creating environments where our people feel comfortable about owning their own health and wellbeing, in the knowledge they will be supported.

In my view, any effective approach to health and wellbeing should include:

A determination to move the relationship with our employees to one of trust.

Rather than providing tons of rules on flexible working, adopt the Swiss Re approach where they tell their people, ‘own the way you work’. This tells their people that they are expected to know when, where and how they work best and that their needs will be accommodated. Instead of loads of policies, encourage your people to #DoTheRightThing as they did at Transport For London during the pandemic. When we feel trusted to do the right thing, we feel more energised and engaged.

As adults we know what’s best for our own health and wellbeing too. I definitely eat more chocolate than I should, but is that because I don’t know that it’s bad for me – or because, even though I know the dietary dangers, I choose to do it anyway? What I need from my employer is not necessarily advice or training or incentives to be healthy. What would be helpful is knowing that I am trusted to work in ways and at times that I can balance effectively with the other demands in my life. And that if I need time off or to take my foot off the gas, that I will be supported. Of course, it’s great to be given healthy perks, but I question whether they can transform my health and wellbeing.

Line managers seeking to understand our employees as individuals and accommodating their needs.

Managers holding frequent check-ins, asking the right questions, relentless listening – should be at the heart of any wellbeing plan. Whether it be Entry Interviews or Stay Interviews like they do at Webroot and LinkedIn respectively, to try and understand from the outset, how they can create the best working environment for each individual. Or ensuring that reward and recognition is based on what is valued by that employee like they do at Baptist Healthcare. Or knowing how best to support individual needs like during onboarding like they do at Wipro. The line managers who can adapt their style to accommodate the needs and wants of each of their team members will create a more supportive and fulfilling work environment. When we talk about a duty of care to our employees, that’s about treating them decently, not just looking after them when things have turned to s**t!

Creating a Feeling of Belonging

70 separate studies show that feeling socially accepted is a key factor in helping our new hires be successful. And that sense that you belong, that you are accepted for who you are, that you matter, that your ideas and views are wanted and that you are valued, become even more important as time goes by. So whether it’s putting in place buddy systems like they do at Buffer, giving employees their own intranet page to let colleagues know who they are as a human being, not just their role description and CV, as they do at AirBnB, moving to peer to peer rewards as they do at South West Airlines, creating a sense of belonging should be key to our health and wellbeing plans.

HR as mediator rather than grievance process administrator

If we think about the grievances we’ve had to deal with in HR, or the people who go off sick with stress, we can often relate the origins to the breakdown of personal relationships at work. An individual starts to feel excluded, not valued and the options available to them to try and resolve this are nearly always procedural. In my experience individuals haven’t necessarily wanted to take the nuclear option of a grievance but just wanted things to change. Maybe we should change our focus from the effective implementation of a grievance procedure or an EAP, to early intervention when relationships start to sour? HR as mediator rather than process administrator.

Remove the hassle

Finally, our health and wellbeing plans ought to focus not just on what we do for our people – but what we take away. If we can reduce those daily frustrations, those small irritations and barriers to people just getting their work done, wouldn’t that at least help with people feeling less stressed out? One of the benefits of the current crisis is that it has given us clarity about what actually matters, and we have been able to cut through the red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy that we’ve been inflicting on our people for decades. So, maybe now’s the time to follow Pepsico’s ‘Process Shredder’ or TD Bank’s ‘Kill a Stupid Bank Rule’ example to make our people’s lives a bit easier. Or replace that cumbersome in-company tech with intuitive, easy to use options like WhatsApp or Workplace by Facebook. Or allow employees to buy the tech that works for them with an allowance like they did at Google.

As I mentioned at the start, I don’t want to dismiss the well-intentioned efforts of typical health and wellbeing approaches. But if we focused more on the causes of stress – the lack of trust, the managers who lack empathy, the things that make us feel excluded and the daily hassles and frustrations, maybe we wouldn’t need to spend all of that $53 billion on things that try and fix the problem?

We know that it’s a really difficult time for everyone right now and we hope that you are all safe and well – and that you are managing to get through it as well as you can. The Disruptive HR team are all isolating in our various locations around the UK and in Spain and trying to keep in regular contact with our families, (Zoom is our new best friend) and not go too insane with our kids!

Work and HR will still be full on for some of you – whilst others may be worrying about getting through the crisis and still having a business. We have been debating about whether we should just keep quiet for the duration – or whether we might be able to provide something of use – even if it’s just to take your mind off things! We recently ran a virtual session for a client who wanted to start looking ahead at the implications for HR of the crisis – and whilst it may feel too early for some, we have put down some of our thoughts.

What we thought was disrupted, now feels stable and boring!

As you know, at Disruptive HR we focus on how HR can change to meet the needs of a disrupted world. Now, that was the old disrupted world when all we needed to cope with was moves to digital, a faster pace of change, new business models shaking or wiping out traditional industries, the growth of the gig economy, the need for cross-border and cross-function collaboration – when we thought the world was disrupted – and which of course now, seems stable and boring!

We were already living through uncertain times and of course no-one can predict when or how this will end. Maybe the only thing we can know is that nothing is likely to be the same again?

On a practical level:

But we don’t know what or how any of these will pan out exactly.

The changes you had already made will stand you in good stead

The need to radically change HR from the bulky, process-driven function had been gathering momentum for some time, especially in the last three years. We have noticed HR teams making significant changes to the way they operate – and the positive news is that all of these changes are likely to stand them in good stead for facing the new post Covid19 world. For those HR teams who haven’t yet made any progress, now could be your time!

I am going to try and do a couple of things:

This is not going to be anything more than an opportunity to take a different perspective for a short period and of course, it might be that this is too early for you – in which case, park it until it feels right.

The HR trends that will continue

At Disruptive HR we have been banging on about our EACH model for a while now; Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings. Our view is that these trends will matter more than ever in a post-Covid-19 world.

Adult to adult is even more important

Our parental approach to our people has always been a major constraint in enabling our people to do their best work. We have typically taken an approach that is over-protective (assuming that our people can’t make sensible judgements, own their own careers and performance and have needed to be spoon-fed), or we have based our rules and our processes around the rogue minority who are going to behave badly and applied over-prescriptive rules to everyone.

We had begun to see companies taking a more adult to adult approach with their leaders and employees – moving away from long lists of prescribed rules and instead putting in place ‘freedom within a framework’ where the starting point is that ‘we trust to you to behave well and trust you to use your judgement’. Or moving to an environment where employees own their own learning, career development, performance, etc, rather than having it done to them.

Covid19 has reinforced the need for this

We are witnessing how people are capable of amazing things when freed from traditional constraints; the creativity, the energy, the things they can achieve with very little, how they can adapt to change really fast. Smart companies are already responding to this and taking more of an adult approach. For example, CEO Dan Price of tech company Gravity is currently choosing to meet virtually with 10 employees at a time across the whole company to get their views on how they can get through losing half their revenue overnight as a result of the Covid-19 crisis without layoffs, rather than consulting just with his senior team and communicating their decision.

Of course, people are also capable of behaving badly in – usually when they are frightened – and we have all seen news reports of the stockpiling, or other acts of selfishness. But the potential for brilliant or appalling behaviour is not determined by grade or seniority. We just have to compare the heroism and selflessness of the shelf stackers and the delivery drivers vs the appalling behaviour of some CEOs such as Mike Ashley of Sports Direct or Tim Martin at Wetherspoons to know that we can’t determine how much we trust our employees on the basis of their grade.

In the future we will no longer be able to afford to keep compensating for people we don’t trust or designing our rules, our processes and our communications around the lowest common denominator. It will no longer be acceptable for a line manager to say that they won’t let people work from home because they don’t trust them enough.  We will spend more time ensuring we hire people we can trust, and we will have to finally tackle the ones we can’t.

Of course, there will be leaders who point to some of the irresponsible behaviour that we’re seeing during the crisis as evidence that they need to continue with command and control. But I think we need to help leaders recognise the difference between people acting out of fear during a crisis, when more clarity may be required, and when judgement is called for because the right course of action cannot be easily dictated. Our leaders will need to be more adept at flexing their style and responses from crisis to ‘normal’ and back again – really quickly and fluidly.

One-size-fits-all cannot ever make sense again

Our one-size-fits all approach to HR, where we have a universal approach that is applied to everyone, was already being challenged and the need to tailor and customise our approaches and products was already beginning to take shape in progressive HR teams.

This will matter more than ever.

We are witnessing the very different needs that our people have through this crisis and the different ways they have responded. In the future we will see employees wanting to make different life choices and have different work priorities. One-size responses from us cannot make sense.

The need to adapt the techniques from consumer marketing and user-centred product design will become even more important as we begin to recover from the crisis.

For example:

Our ‘critical’ HR processes have been replaced with human interactions overnight

We had already seen the gradual dismantling of some of our most irrelevant and ineffective processes and the replacement of them with approaches that tapped into how human beings actually behave, think, feel etc. We’d already seen the slow erosion of performance management reviews and the annual talent review based on a 9 box grid, and the alternatives of frequent and undocumented check-ins and talent discussions being put in their place. The crisis will undoubtedly speed this up.

All of those ‘critical’ HR processes that we said we ‘couldn’t live without’ have disappeared overnight and no-one seems to be screaming for their return. As things begin to return to normal, this is our opportunity to get rid of them for good

When the crisis began, what mattered most was human connections. We started to ask our work colleagues about their families, to care more about people. Overnight our leadership seemed more human. We see them in their homes, with their kids on webcams, struggling with stuff like the rest of us. Those leaders who are showing vulnerability and their human side are going down well right now.

Many leaders are now doing what the great leaders have always done. They are showing compassion, demonstrating empathy, doing the right thing without waiting to be told, keeping it simple and showing a pragmatic optimism – all the while building trust with their people.

When we take stock after the crisis, those leaders who behaved like truly decent human beings will be the ones we thank and celebrate – not the ones who complied with the HR processes.

And what about our own HR teams?

HR was already changing before this happened. We were starting to become more agile, less focused on slow annual processes and more sprint based, less siloed and braver, more prepared to pilot and experiment and less focused on getting things perfect and more around making things happen.

Josh Bersin has done a great short video recently talking about this being an opportunity for an HR re-set and I think he’s absolutely right. We will have dramatically reduced budgets, there will be the confusion and fear created by the chaos, priorities will have to change. We will have an opportunity to make changes very quickly. We have an opportunity now, not to implement a new system but to take a hard look at ourselves and say, how will we change? How will we emerge from this as a different type of team?

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Every year the PR giant Edelman publishes a global survey on one issue – trust. It considers the levels of trust we have in our public institutions, technical experts, each other – and our business leaders. Whilst the latest results have seen an increase of trust in CEO’s from a low of 37% a few years ago, nearly half of us still believe that they are untrustworthy. This has serious implications for the ways in which we have traditionally led our people; command and control, the leader as superhero, communications broadcast and cascaded from the top, etc. If people are less inclined to trust in business leaders, then these approaches are fundamentally flawed.

Trust matters more than ever

Does it matter that trust in leadership remains so low? I believe the need for people to trust their leaders has never been more important for three key reasons.

Firstly, trust equals money. When 84% of global companies’ market value is comprised of so-called “intangible assets” – goodwill, intellectual capital and brand equity – the ability of employees to impact that value is significant. Gone are the days when a disgruntled employee would simply moan about their leader in the pub with a few mates. Now they can inform millions. Just look at how AOL’s Tim Armstrong’s sacking of an employee in a big meeting went viral in a matter of hours. Look at the rise of Glassdoor, the Tripadvisor for places to work. Employee power is growing and lack of trust in leaders can cost companies dear.

Secondly, in this disrupted world, leaders are asking their employees to follow them into the most unchartered of territories. They ask their people to work in new ways, with new technologies, in new environments and with new people. How can leaders expect employees to follow them into this uncertain and scary world when they don’t believe they’re trustworthy?

Finally, in the knowledge economy leaders need their people to consciously give them their ideas, their creativity, their connections and their opinions. In a world where technology has provided so many more choices about where and how we work, leaders need to be seen as worthy of that choice.

Leaders destroy trust every day

Having been a member of the BBC leadership team that oversaw the Savile crisis and its severance scandal, I am clearly not speaking from a position of moral authority here – but hopefully with a degree of understanding and humility! There are some things we do as leaders that destroy trust every day. I’m not talking about the big unethical stuff, but rather some really basic things that we do every day, often unwittingly, that erode the relationships with our people. For me there are four key things we do as leaders that destroy trust and I should point out that I have probably been guilty of doing all of these at some point in my career!

  1. Our communications lack humanity

Something weird happens to people when they communicate as leaders. We forget all of the communication techniques that we use with our friends and families and develop a “corporate personae” that is almost devoid of any humanity. One day at the BBC, I got a call from a guy in News who wanted to be helpful by explaining to me that “my emails were crap” and I should “get someone else to write them for me”. I was slightly taken aback as this was precisely what I had done. My emails were usually written with several other people – people in HR, people in Legal, people in the press team and people in Internal Communications. But to humour him I went back over some of my recent missives and realised with dismay that he was right. My emails were crap. They seemed pompous and sterile, lacking any humanity or humility. I had adopted the royal Executive “We” and, in an effort to be accurate, I had “lawyered-out” any personality.

Leadership comms often ignores the power of storytelling that could create a bond with our listeners and we rely too heavily on one of the single biggest destroyers of humane communications – PowerPoint. We push deck after deck of dry analysis at them believing, wrongly, that the power of logical argument will build buy-in to our ideas. During the period when we were trying to communicate the need to reform the BBC’s pension scheme, the trade unions’ leaflets were so much more powerful than the corporate line. They posted images of fat, overpaid BBC executives who cared little for the staff and produced caricatures of the Director General and his team that had an almost pantomime villain quality. The leaders talked about mortality rates and interest rate risks. A futile attempt to combat emotion with analysis.

  1. We lack courage when things get tough

Of course, it is hard to walk into a room of angry staff. No leader relishes facing their team after announcing job losses or pay cuts. But it amases me how many of us take the money that goes with the senior role and yet become invisible when it gets tough. In every period of difficult news “Hunt the missing Exec” is a favourite pastime and yet this disappearing act damages our employees’ faith in us to do the right thing.

  1. We demand petty privileges

The increasing emphasis on transparency has led many public sector bodies to publish expense claims of its senior leaders. Whilst the press focus on the more luxurious claims – a bottle of champagne or a posh dinner – what annoys employees the most is the smaller claims – the postage stamp or the cappuccino – by people who are on six-figure salaries. We’ve all seen these small abuses of privilege and some of us have been guilty of doing it; the demand for a good parking space, the slightly better tech than everyone else, no hot desking for the Execs. It does us no favours and we come across as mean-spirited. You wouldn’t trust a friend who demanded petty privileges so why would you trust your leader?

  1. We don’t trust them

As leaders we expect to be trusted by employees but it’s very much a one-way street because we certainly don’t appear to trust them. So many of our rules and policies have been developed because someone did something bad once and a rule was developed to prevent anyone doing it ever again. We all have the “Stop Them” Policies and indeed hours of our time go into enforcing them. Think about your own employment contract. It will probably tell you how much you are going to be paid, the hours you are expected to work and the 30 policies that if breached, will result in you being fired. Hardly the opening gambit for a trusting relationship!

The three things leaders can do to build trust

So how can leaders build a more trusting relationship with their people? Clearly, there are some bigger questions around business ethics, regulation and transparency, building purpose or pay differentials between leaders and their people. But what are things that leaders can do every day to build better relationships? I believe there are three changes they can make.

  1. Obsess about knowing them

You can only have a relationship with people you actually know. It’s not enough to try and engage with large groups of employees as if they are a homogenous lump. You wouldn’t engage with your customers in such an unsophisticated way; we invest significant amounts of time and money trying to know their likes, dislikes, ways of thinking and behaving. Yet we rarely apply this to our own people. 80% of us still only survey our people once a year and then produce actions plans that aim to show “we’ve listened”. We need to learn from our colleagues in marketing about customer data and insight and creating leadership communications and approaches that are based on their varying needs and wants. But there is also room for more traditional forms of relationship building too. The Coop recently looked at what their people really wanted from their leaders. What came back surprised them in its simplicity. They wanted to be listened to, to feel that their leader was interested in them and to have honest conversations with them.

  1. Treat them as adults

If we are going to build trusting relationships in the new world, we have to create working environments that have at their very core, a belief that our employees are decent, adult, human beings who can be trusted to behave well. If we changed our contract of employment to one that is not written with an eye on future tribunals but is about a mutually trusting adult relationship, how different would it be? If we tackled the individual who had behaved badly without creating new rules to prevent anyone else behaving that way, how empowering would that be? If leaders stopped believing that they have to the answers to preserve their status and instead said ‘what do you think?’ or ‘I trust you – use your judgement’, how much more empowering is that?

  1. Humility is making a come-back

Showing humility is rarely one of the qualities we look for in our leadership selection criteria. But I believe it is making a come-back. Our collective futures depends upon our leaders’ abilities to build partnerships, to collaborate more effectively with customers and competitors, to spot new business opportunities and threats early and to be agile in response, to manage diverse and virtual teams and to create environments where individuals can flourish and cope with uncertainty. We’ve all worked for or with the narcissist or the psychopath – these are not the people who are capable of leading in this new world. We desperately need some lower ego leaders in the future who get their kicks from enabling and creating environments where their team can do their best work, rather than through their own personal glory. And what about the leaders we’ve already got? Well, we have to help them be the very best human beings they can be. We need to encourage them to let their guard down, to understand the positive impact of humility, to use emotional stories rather than just sharing data, to be visible when it goes wrong and take the flak – to see niceness as an asset, not a weakness. Only then can we start to build the trust we so desperately need.

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The most recent global survey into the issue of trust has some challenging implications for HR. So much of our current approach stems is based around our leaders being the font of all truth, wisdom and credibility.

Continue reading Building trust through the frontline